Video games have treated us to all manner of simulation jobs over the years. We’ve built hospitals, maintained zoos, tilled farmland and even built roller coasters that were definitely not safe for anyone to ride. But what about building and running your very own prison? Now that’s a whole other kettle of incarcerated fish. Do you rule with an iron grip and risk mass riots, or do you pamper your prisoners with lavish affection? Whatever your management style, Prison Architect: Nintendo Switch Edition has every possible tool, resource and scenario you could possibly ask for.
Much like the PC original - which eventually exited Early Access in 2015 before making the jump to other consoles the year after - the Switch version of this prison simulation is a vast and often intimidating beast, especially if you’re new to this kind of game. It’s both a blessing and a curse for this impressive little indie, offering up a sublime and deeply empowering management experience, but one that requires every ounce of your attention. Heed our warning: this is no casual walk in the prison yard.
As the warden of a privately-owned prison, it’s your job to run, maintain, expand and ‘control’ a prison of your very own making. And you’ve got the scope - and the budget - to pull it off. But there’s more to this than just selecting a building type and plonking it down on a plot of land. Should you choose Prison Architect mode, you’ll need to build foundations, then erect walls to separate rooms or cells. You’ll need to designate each room a specific role, then furnish it appropriately. Next, you’ll link it up to the water mains and an electrical grid. And that’s just the surface.
This is a prison after all, and a correctional facility needs guards and trained staff to ensure those locked-up convicts don’t get any ideas above their station. You’ll need to hire staff, and train them, and ensure they follow manually drawn guard routes to show your nefarious population who’s boss. You can set up education programs for your cons to keep them entertained, and state of the art canteens to fill them up with the latest in prison slop, but you’ll still need to oversee the need for treatment centres and parole hearings. However, if the idea of building a penal institution from the dirt up is a little too intimidating, you can also select Prison Warden mode instead and expand or maintain a pre-designed facility.
Your dangerous population is also your biggest asset. You get money for keeping every convict locked up, so you’ll need to weigh up cramming them in like sardines and rake in that sweet, sweet cash (and potentially rake in riots while you’re at it) or create a high-end correctional palace that costs the earth but keeps your charges ‘happy’ for the most part. But, this is a slammer after all, and if we’ve learned anything from the halcyon days of Theme Hosptial, Dungeon Keeper and Rollercoaster Tycoon, it’s that things always go wrong.
Fail to keep every cell, oven, electric chair and shower unit in good working order - and with so many systems to track you almost certainly will let something slip into disrepair - and you could have anything from a prison-wide power outage to a raging fire that consumes entire blocks and the orange jumpsuit-ed denizens within. Now you’ll need to call firefighters and manually direct them where to go before removing all the ruined masonry. It’s a constant reminder that everything needs to be micromanaged and few things are truly automated. Oh, and there’s the constant worry that your throng of inmates are secretly plotting - or pulling off, Andy Dufresne-style - a daring bid for freedom. It feels almost like a violation the first time it happens, but it’s a costly reminder your virtual prison will almost certainly chow down on the hand that feeds it.
And you’re getting some serious content for your £25/$30, too. Freshly released as part of Nintendo’s latest raft of indie support, this edition of the game packs in the freeform Prison Architect/Prison Warden modes alongside a set of five Prison Stories that serve as a welcome tutorial (with an added narrative twist). You’ll also get access to the World of Wardens (where you can play the original designs of other players in the community, and share your own). There’s even an incoming Escape mode that tasks you with recruiting a crew and making a bid for freedom (although this will come as DLC later in the summer). And, as if that wasn’t enough, you’ll have access to eight new wardens, eight new maps and the handy ability to pad your cells and add a wing for the Criminally Insane. It’s certainly an impressive haul.
The only real issue we have with Prison Architect on Switch is the same one we encountered on other console versions - the awkward transition of its controls to a ‘traditional’ pad. Whether you’re using the Joy-Cons in their various configurations or a Pro Controller, there’s simply no substitute for the unrivalled dexterity of a mouse and keyboard. Double Eleven - the same studio that ported the game previously - has done the best it can with that inherent problem, but even after countless hours of play, using an analog stick to control a cursor still doesn’t feel natural.
With all manner of pre-designed and freeform modes - and a haul of DLC included as standard - the last thing you’ll be doing with Prison Architect: Nintendo Switch Edition is hard time. The sheer amount of interconnected systems you need to track and maintain are as vast as they are intricate, but learn to spin its penal plates and you’ll have one of the deepest - and most rewarding - simulation games ever made at your fingertips. It’s still an awkward fit for console controls, but the game beneath them is worth the effort nonetheless.